Monday, January 18, 2016

Brando on Brando, and Two Valedictories

Actor Marlon Brando is the subject of new documentary, Listen to Me Marlon.

Late in his life Marlon Brando recorded a series of audiotapes on which he put down his thoughts about his life and his career and, unexpectedly, about acting – unexpectedly because in the handful of interviews he agreed to after The Godfather made him famous again he tended to talk about the subject with disdain or to dismiss it altogether. Of course those of us for whom Brando was (and still is) the greatest of all American actors took his slighting of acting with a hefty helping of salt. It’s understandable that his political commitments to civil rights and especially the cause of Native Americans prompted him to put what actors do for a living in perspective and theorize that performing in front of a camera simply isn’t as important to the world as fighting injustice. But the man who put cotton in his mouth to get the right sound for Don Corleone and determined to showcase his humanity rather than play him as a gangster-movie villain (clearly with the collusion of Francis Coppola and his co-writer Mario Puzo), the man who allowed Bernardo Bertolucci to shoot him emotionally as well as physically naked in Last Tango in Paris, was still an actor profoundly committed to his art. And that was after years of making – and often transcending – the crap Hollywood mostly handed him after the too-brief halcyon days when he was generally recognized as the most exciting actor in the world. Even when he was in semi-retirement on his Tahitian island, emerging only occasionally to make movie appearances for which he charged exorbitant fees, he almost always gave audiences something to watch. His power is hardly diminished in movies like A Dry White Season, Don Juan DeMarco, The Score or The Freshman (where he does a witty parody of his own work in The Godfather), and he’s mesmerizing – and deeply unsettling – as George Lincoln Rockwell in an episode of the TV miniseries Roots II. Still, it’s amazing to discover that Brando left behind hours of commentary on acting, confirming – if confirmation was needed – his dedication to his chosen profession.

Stevan Riley uses those tapes as the basis of the fascinating documentary Listen to Me Marlon, in tandem with clips from interviews going back to the 1950s and through his TV tête-à-têtes with Connie Chung and Larry King. (I watched them both when they aired, and remember the first with embarrassment: Brando somehow managed to refrain from being caustic, but you could see the dismay in his eyes as Chung asked one moronic question after another. It occurred to me at the time that Brando, with his feeling for cultures outside his own, had probably assumed that an Asian-American television personality was less likely to be as stupid as most white interviewers and realized too late that he’d miscalculated.) The effect of this mix is partly like the one Alex Gibney achieves in Sinatra: All or Nothing at All with his intercutting of interviews with the singer in different phases of his career, but with the added dimension that the tapes, being end-of-life reflections, sometimes seem to be answering the remarks he offered when he was younger – not in the ironic, mocking way that Samuel Beckett’s Krapp responds to his younger self in Krapp’s Last Tape but almost as if he were finishing his own sentences decades later. The aging Brando may be more cynical at times (as when he suggests that we all start acting when we learn to lie to get what we want), but the surprise is in how often we recognize the young man – thoughtful, articulate, sensitive – who sits for a long, revealing broadcast with Edward R. Murrow in 1955.

There was an earlier documentary, Brando, directed by Mimi Freedman and Leslie Greif, that aired on TV in 2007; it was pretty good and, at nearly three hours, satisfyingly extensive. Listen to Me Marlon is way more experimental, and though one or two of Riley’s more meandering ideas don’t work – like the images of Brando’s digitized head at the beginning and the end – it’s a remarkable and moving document. And in its self-reflective way it deals with every major element of Brando’s life. Some of the footage is familiar from other sources. I recognized, from the 2007 doc, the heartbreaking image of the actor breaking down in court during the murder of trial of his son Christian, who had killed his half-sister Cheyenne’s abusive boy friend; and the clip of Brando, in support of the Black Panthers, vowing to serve as a conduit to other white Americans showed up recently in the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Most people have seen, or at any rate heard of, Sacheen Littlefeather’s appearance at the Academy Awards in 1973 to refuse the Oscar on his behalf in protest against Hollywood’s portrayal of Indians. But except for the evidence of his activist side, which Freedman and Greif covered thoroughly and with refreshing sympathy in their portrait, the footage we may have seen already is contextualized in fresh new ways. And even the political material is enhanced by Riley’s inclusion of two intercut allusions (from one of his fifties interviews and the audiotapes) to Brando’s having had to live down his identification with Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. The press kept insisting that he was Stanley, a coarse, semi-articulate bully whom, he underscores, he was nothing like. Frankly I never understood the way the press treated him when he turned down the Oscar and used the occasion to promote the Indian cause. Not only did they advocated Hollywood’s ridiculous idea that the Academy Awards are such a sacred occasion that any interruption, any reference to the problems of the real world, must be in appalling taste; it was taken for granted for the rest of Brando’s life that his political pronouncements were fatuous, even risible, as if he really were Stanley Kowalski trying to sound smart. In fact, he was always intelligent when he spoke about the mistreatment of Native Americans, and it might have occurred to his detractors to respect the fact that he cared more about the plight of the disenfranchised than he did about Hollywood. And what was generally considered to be grandstanding at the 1973 Oscar show, as Native activist Russell Means points out in Brando, had the effect of bringing a sort of attention to the cause of the Indians that nothing had before; it was a game changer.

Listen to Me Marlon (which Riley edited as well as writing and directing) links the tragedies of Brando’s children to the actor’s difficult relationships with his own parents. He adored his mother, a sensitive soul who taught him to love nature, but ironically one of the things he loved about her was the sweet smell of whiskey continually on her breath, and on the tapes he speaks of watching her “fray at the ends.” He remembers his father, also a drunk, hitting her. (As we hear him expostulate on the way an actor uses the powerful emotions stored up from this kind of memory as fuel for drama, Riley cuts to Stanley’s explosion at the dinner table when he feels that Stella is putting him down for his vulgarity.) This is the same man who sent Marlon as a teenager to military school, which he despised. In a clip, we see Brando with his father on a 1950s talk show, where the actor smiles bashfully while his father tells the host he’s proud of his son – as a man, not as an actor. (What, we wonder, would Brando have to do to make the old man proud of him as an actor?) On tape the older Brando refers to this act they performed in public – the loving son, the proud father – which was all hypocrisy, but I think some of the bitter truth slips into this amazing piece of footage. When Brando became a father himself, he didn’t want the old man anywhere near Christian because of the damage he’d done to him in his childhood. But after the turmoil his own family endured, the bitter divorce from Christian’s mother, the Indian actress Anna Kashfi, Christian’s kidnaping at thirteen (by men who turned out to be in Kashfi’s employ), his five-year sentence for killing Cheyenne’s boy friend, Cheyenne’s eventual suicide – Brando admits that, though he tried hard not to be like his father, in certain ways he couldn’t help it. He ends up forgiving his dad, who, he decides, did the best he could after suffering himself as a child at the hands of his own father. It’s like a Greek tragedy, with the sins of the earlier generations reverberating through each successive one. (Christian’s two marriages were disasters, the second one violent, and he died only four years after his father, in 2008, from pneumonia that may have been connected to his history of drug abuse.) When Brando made Last Tango in Paris in 1972, the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, encouraged him to improvise on material from his own past, especially in his character Paul’s beautiful monologue about his Nebraska farm childhood with two alcoholic parents; in less obvious ways, he must have been drawing on his marital horrors in the scene – the greatest one he ever played – where he rants at the bier of his dead wife and then breaks down in tears.

Of course, for someone who cares about acting and especially for devoted Brandophiles like me, the most valuable parts of Listen to Me Marlon are Brando’s discussions of acting – and it’s a surprise to discover how willing he was to talk about it in his early years in Hollywood as well as at the end of his life on the tapes. His teacher and mentor was Stella Adler, the star of the Group Theatre in the thirties who opened her own studio in the forties and was so kind to Brando before he broke through in the Broadway production of Streetcar in 1947, when he was fragile and struggling, that he spoke of her gratefully throughout his life. (She even put him up in her Manhattan apartment.) Riley shows us moments from an old kinescope on which she works with acting students, exhorting them, “The play has nothing to do with words. You don’t act with words; you act with your soul.” Brando took her at her word: as Pauline Kael pointed out in her New Yorker review of Last Tango, his specialty from the first was suggesting what words were inadequate to frame. He started out as a New York stage performer, but he was drawn to the movies from the first. “When the camera is close to you,” he explains on the tapes, “your face . . . is the proscenium arch of the theater.” And he was hopeful that, acting as a kind of conduit for Adler’s ideas about acting, he could change movies in profound ways. The Group Theatre actors were the first in America to consciously practice Stanislavskian acting (“the Method”); Adler went to Paris to study with Stanislavski himself, and what she brought back caused her to break irrevocably with the other celebrated guru of the Method, Lee Strasberg, her old colleague from the Group. Through the Actors Studio and through his courting of celebrity status – especially in his and his wife Paula’s unseemly role as private tutors to Marilyn Monroe – Strasberg was the louder of the two voices; among its other virtues, Listen to Me Marlon restores some of Adler’s faded luster as a vital force in the history of American acting. Brando was impatient with the gesture-laden movie-star acting of the thirties and forties, which he thought had become absurd, calcified; inspired by Adler, he wanted to inject a new reality into movie performance. That’s why he hung out with paraplegics for his first screen role, as the World War II vet who has lost his legs in Fred Zinnemann’s The Men. “Be surprising,” he instructs young actors on the tapes. “Figure out a way to do it that has never been done before. Get people [in the audience] to stop chewing [their popcorn]. The truth will do that.”

Eva Marie Saint and Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954).

The young Brando we see in the early interviews (he was twenty-six when he made The Men, thirty when On the Waterfront was released) is devastatingly handsome and irresistibly charming, especially with pretty female interviewers; we believe him when he says, on the tapes, “If I hadn’t had the good luck to be an actor, I might have been a con man.” He had a ball in those days, hanging out in Harlem clubs playing his bongos, clowning with his pals (we see home-movie footage of him with Monty Clift and Kevin McCarthy), riding his motorcycle and sleeping around. He got to try all kinds of parts: Emilio Zapata in Viva Zapata! for his favorite director, Elia Kazan, Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, Johnny the rebel in The Wild One, Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. Not all of them worked out (Viva Zapata! wasn’t a high point). But though Guys and Dolls was lousy, as the clip of him serenading Jean Simmons with “A Woman in Love” reminds us, he was the best thing in it (and she was the second best). Unhappily, fame, as he confides on the tapes, attacked his sanity and his sense of personal reality. There’s an unsettling scene of him being suffocated by fans at the premiere of Guys and Dolls; he looks shaken, and he tells a reporter how terrifying it was. And though indeed he did alter movie acting forever, the tumult created by the power and immediacy of his performances in Streetcar and On the Waterfront came at a steep price. His independent-mindedness was a threat in Hollywood, and when American artists hit hard when they’re young, there’s almost always a backlash, some odious mix of jealousy and the impulse to put them in their place. The roles he landed in the late fifties and the sixties were mostly not worthy of his gifts, though he was often terrific – if unappreciated – in them. When the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty went over budget, he was blamed for everything that had gone wrong when in fact his witty portrait of Fletcher Christian as a foppish aristocrat seduced by the beauties of Tahiti (as Brando was in real life) is the only reason to watch that awful picture. But he couldn’t redeem movies like Bedtime Story with David Niven or Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong Kong with Sophia Loren, and the clips Riley inserts make you cringe. “How can you do that to yourself?” the voice on the tapes asks. “Haven’t you got any fuckin’ pride left?”

But then there were The Godfather and Last Tango. (And before The Godfather there was John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, which the doc doesn’t mention – though Riley does include, in a montage, an amazing, delusional moment where Brando’s Major Pendleton, a closeted homosexual, salutes himself in uniform in his bedroom mirror.) It’s a truism that the difference between what classically trained British actors do is work from the outside in and what Method-trained American actors do is to work from the inside out, but when you see Brando’s screen test for Don Corleone (Paramount didn’t want him for the part, so Coppola had to use a test to persuade them), where he finds a physical way to get the godfather’s vocal affect, and he tells us on the tapes, “Little by little I got into this part,” you see no appreciable distinction between Brando’s approach and that of the only actor who was his equal, Laurence Olivier. He talks about the way a performance “reflect[s] the atmosphere of our times” (he claims that if he’d been brought up in Vito Corleone’s society, then he would be like him) and stresses the importance of the small things in a piece of acting, which are so much harder to pull off than the big ones – the shouting, the explosions. The scene Riley throws in here, where Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen has to break the news to the godfather that Sonny has been killed, offers a sterling example. And then Brando quotes Hamlet’s advice to the players.

Brando gets to other topics on the tapes: his beloved Tahiti, his distrust of psychoanalysts, his evidently futile efforts to hypnotize himself out of overeating, the complicated story of the filming of Apocalypse Now. But aside from his fraught, heartbreaking relationships with his parents and his children and his reflections on the dark side of fame, it’s his thoughts on acting that are the meat of Listen to Me Marlon. No one could have predicted that he would wind up speaking, at such length and with such impassioned clarity, on the subject he claimed for years he found inconsequential and boring. The movie represents a new part of the legacy of America’s greatest actor, a kind of epilogue to his work that also confirms its timelessness. It makes you want to watch his finest performances over again, one by one.

Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman on Broadway in Private Lives in 2002. (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The acting world suffered two significant losses in the last week: Brian Bedford on Wednesday, at eighty, and Alan Rickman on Thursday, at sixty-nine. Rickman was celebrated for his icepick diction and aristocratic hauteur, which he often drew on to lend a high-comic touch to his performances, even when he was playing villains (as fans of the original Die Hard movie well know). If he had been a Hollywood studio actor in the thirties and forties, he might have been Henry Daniell or perhaps Basil Rathbone. But that fate would have squandered his technique, which was extraordinary, and his deft, slippery handling of tone. This last kept audiences guessing in his portrayal, over eight movies, of Severus Snape, Harry Potter’s complex, inscrutable adversary, whose leap to heroism in the final chapter, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, makes sense of the glints of meaning and unexplained motive embedded in his behavior throughout the series. That was his specialty: concealing the heart of his characters like a prize in a shell game, to be revealed when you least expected it. His emotional tells were part of his dazzling sleight of hand. I had the pleasure of seeing Rickman on stage twice: opposite Lindsay Duncan as Elyot in Noël Coward’s Private Lives – a part he was surely born to play – and in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, in the role of the caustic literary celebrity who rips apart the work of a quartet of aspiring fiction writers. The second was a genuine star turn, the kind that the Broadway of the twenties and thirties offered routinely season after season but that we rarely get to experience in our time. But of the many Rickman performances I’ve enjoyed (including his tossed-off bit as Ronald Reagan in The Butler), my favorite remains his Jamie in Anthony Minghella’s 1990 Truly Madly Deeply. Here he plays Juliet Stevenson’s dead lover, whose loss is so unbearable to her, drowning her in sorrow, that he comes back as a ghost. Truly Madly Deeply is hilarious and romantic; it’s also one of the most trenchant depictions of grief ever filmed. And Rickman’s shadow-play, shifting-screen portrayal is the earliest and perhaps the most affecting example of his talent for holding back his character’s true agenda until the very end. (No one who’s seen the movie is likely to have forgotten the shot of Jamie, peering through the window at Stevenson as she walks away into her new life.) Rickman made his first screen appearances in the late seventies and early eighties, in memorable television dramas like the BBC Romeo and Juliet (he was Tybalt), Thérèse Raquin and Smiley’s People. He had a career that spanned nearly four decades – not nearly long enough.

Brian Bedford & Maggie Smith in Private Lives. (Stratford, 1978)
By sheer coincidence, both the actors who left us last week played Elyot in Private Lives. Bedford starred opposite Maggie Smith at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada in 1978 and I don’t mean to diminish Rickman’s performance (he was great) when I say that Robin Phillips’ production was the most brilliant I’ve ever seen – and that I was fairly certain, at twenty-seven, that I’d never see a better one. Phillips brought out the heartbreak beneath the scathing, brittle wit of Coward’s lines without sacrificing the comedy, and throughout the two actors seemed to skating, executing breathtaking spirals on cracking ice with the abyss gaping just below the thin veneer. Bedford and Smith, both Brits were a team in those days, and their chemistry was a large part of the reason you went to see them over and over again (usually under Phillips’ direction) with your heart in your mouth. I was fortunate enough to catch them as Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, as Elizabeth and Richard in Richard III, as the Actor and Actress in The Guardsman, as Trigorin and Arkadina in The Seagull. And I saw several of Bedford’s famous Molière turns, the first in a Broadway mounting of The School for Wives and the best in a Stratford Tartuffe, where his reading of the title character’s first line (calling for his hair shirt) was so ringed with narcissism, condescension and opportunistic showmanship that the audience howled with laughter. Perhaps no actor has ever made such a scrumptious meal of that line or demonstrated so acutely the justification for Molière’s daring in waiting until nearly the play’s mid-point to bring on his titular character. Among his long list of theatrical accomplishments was heading the cast of a splendid revival of Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance at the Roundabout in New York in 1997. Bedford began in the sixties as a handsome young British film actor, in movies like The Pad and How to Use It and Grand Prix, but he didn’t make enough of an impression on film audiences, and even if he’d struck gold he couldn’t have sustained that sort of career. Instead he reinvented himself as one of the world’s foremost stage technicians. Watching him live was thrilling.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. The tapes that Brando made, excerpts from which are used in this documentary, are almost certainly the ones that he recorded for Robert Lindsey, the ghostwriter of his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, which was published in 1994. Like most celebrity autobiographies, it was not very revealing; it functioned mostly as Brando's attempt to burnish his star image. I doubt that he kept a private journal on tape.